Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Would I Want to Be a Teacher in My Own School?

One of the most significant shifts that I faced as I made my move from classroom teacher to vice principal, was the realization that I needed to dedicate as much time, care, energy and attention towards the adults in the building as I do to the students. As a classroom teacher the focus is primarily on the students sitting in front of you- and rightly so. It is an enormous responsibility and challenge to create the optimum learning conditions that will ensure that each individual child receives the emotional, social and academic support that they need for their continued growth and learning. As a classroom teacher, I was enormously impacted by this question, poised by Dave Burgess-
If your students didn't have to be there, would you be teaching to an empty room?

I can distinctly remember that moment, and the thought that popped into my head. It was,"Oh crap." Because it forced me to be honest about what I was trying to achieve as a classroom teacher. Was I just trying to get by, to survive, to make my way through the never ending mountain of marking? Or was I trying to empower a generation of engaged and thoughtful global citizens?

I was once again reminded of this challenge when reading The Innovator's Mindset, by George Couros. Couros suggests that in order to create the conditions for innovation and growth, we need to ask ourselves some essential questions, including-
Would I want to be a learner in my own classroom?

As someone who struggled in school myself, as a teacher, I challenged myself to create the learning conditions that would have kept me motivated, engaged and excited about learning. Even after 17 years in the classroom, I still found this a daunting task. 

But again, the shift for me as a school administrator was that it's not only the students that I serve, it's the teachers.  Dean Shareski closes his recent blog post, "Professional Learning is Messy" with this question- 
How do you and your leadership create conditions and opportunities for you to listen?

Dean argues that some of the best professional learning results from opportunities to sit and listen, to hear from passionate individuals, the "smart people" who push us to actively engage with new thoughts and ideas. So like the "perfect storm", each of these elements have challenged me to extend George Couros' question to the following:

Would I want to be a teacher in my own school?

I'm not big on resolutions, and like most educators, my "new year" began in September. But as we move into 2016, I am resolved to help create the conditions in my school that would have inspired, motivated and supported me as a classroom teacher. I am resolved to serve the adults in the building with the same care and attention as I serve the students. No small task. I will make mistakes. It will likely be messy at times. But I also resolve to be as patient with my own learning, my own growth as I was with my students'. To be honest, for me, that's likely the bigger challenge.
I'll let you know how it goes...

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Taking It Personally...

Among the many pieces of advice that I was given as a new administrator, one is reminiscent of a line from a favourite movie of mine, A League of Their Own. Similar to Tom Hank's infamous line, a colleague told me, "There's no crying in Admin..." As harsh as that might sound, to some extent, he was right. As administrators, we are quite often faced with students and families in crisis, families who are attempting to navigate heart-breaking, sometimes enormously traumatic events in their lives. In these moments, it's neither helpful, nor professionally responsible, to allow our own emotions to surface. As time passes, many of us become accomplished at compartmentalizing, maintaining a calm, supportive and empathetic demeanour in the face of sometimes challenging and emotionally charged circumstances.

That mindset is possible in part due to another piece of advice I've often heard- Don't take it personally. Again, on the surface, good advice. Often students, parents and staff come to us upset, angry and frustrated. But just as often, there is a context that is rarely directly related to something that we personally have done. Again, in these moments, taking it personally isn't helpful. Instead, I have learned to stop, and listen- gradually determining the root of the concern...

But sometimes, I think we do need to take it personally.

This next part is particularly difficult for me to write. In October, I wrote about an experience that I had with a student who was struggling. He was rarely attending classes, and was feeling disconnected to our school community. In conversation with this student, I shared some of my own challenges, my own struggles in school. Gradually, over a period of weeks, this student began to attend more regularly, often stopping by my office first to say "good morning" to me. He had amazingly supportive teachers who were also working with him, welcoming him into their classes, working to get him caught up on assignments. We seemed to be making a real difference with this student...

...Until suddenly, he stopped coming all together. This student has since dropped out of school. My heart breaks a little as I write that. Because how is it possible not to take that personally? I'm not suggesting that I alone am solely responsible. In the same way that I would never dream of taking "credit" for the "successes" of staff and students, I know that I can't accept sole responsibility or blame for "failures". But I also believe that part of what makes us effective educators and leaders, is to some extent, taking things personally- putting our heart and soul into our schools, our communities.

In fact, some of the people who inspire and move me the most are those who, without a doubt, take it personallyIan Landy (@technolandy) and Karen Copeland (@KarenCopeland3) champion for mental health awareness by sharing deeply personal stories of their own children. Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp) honestly and openly shares a story of when she felt compelled to apologize to a former student for "failing" him. And George Couros (@gcouros) unapologetically wears his heart on his sleeve, sharing and inspiring through personal narratives that illicit both tears and laughter. These are all individuals who bravely share their vulnerabilities with others so that we can learn, and grow from their experiences.
Image Credit

So as much as I know that as an administrator I need to keep my own emotions in check in order to best serve my school community, I can't pretend that it didn't break my heart a bit to learn that this student, this boy who I had tried so desperately to welcome into our school community, had dropped out. It's hard not to take that personally. But at the same time, I can't let it immobilize or defeat me. I can learn from it, and I can move forward. Some days that isn't easy. But it is my responsibility to keep trying.

Update- January 2016...
Happy to provide an update. This student has decided to return to school for second semester. He has missed our school community. Thrilled to welcome him back! :)

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Goldilocks Zone of Leadership

The "Goldilocks Zone" refers to a habitable area of space in which planets can conceivably support liquid water, a key ingredient for life. It is the optimal proximity to a star- neither too close, nor too far. It's just right.

Similarly, the challenge of leadership requires us to find that same optimal zone. Effective, innovative leaders must work to create that "just right" environment in which staff and students feel supported and inspired to be their best selves, to take risks and to explore new opportunities. My ongoing challenge is to determine that "just right" level of support. Too much can leave staff and students feeling overwhelmed and undervalued. Too little can lead to stagnation and disengagement.

I'd like to say that I've discovered the perfect balance, that just right zone. But leadership is not a perfect science. There's no exact measurement, no fail safe formula that can be applied to a vibrant and dynamic school community. Because a school community is comprised of a myriad of complex and variable elements, the most essential and the most complex of which is the human element. 

Fortunately, I'm not alone on this journey to find this "Goldilocks Zone"- the place that provides optimal conditions for learning, innovation and growth. I have help. I can continue to rely on the advice and support of my mentors. I can reflect on the open and honest feedback of my colleagues. And I can listen carefully to voices of my students. The key ingredients...
Not too much.
Not too little.
Just right.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

An Opportunity For More

Every morning, after the first bell of the day, I stand at the front door of my school and say "good morning" to each student as they come in. Without a doubt, it is my favourite part of the day. New to my school this year, in September when I first began this morning ritual, students were a little unsure of how to respond... I should mention that I'm the vice principal of a high school. Most teenagers are not exactly "morning people". As such, many of my students are still groggily half asleep, earbuds firmly implanted, hoods up, coffee in hand. Initially, responses to my greeting would range from the occasional "good morning" in return, to puzzled glances, to complete avoidance. But gradually, as students became accustomed to this morning routine, they began to respond to my greeting, even initiating the now familiar "good morning" themselves.

But the reason why this is the favourite part of my day isn't simply because of those two words, it's because this morning ritual is an opportunity for so much more. Because under the "pretence" of welcoming students into the school, I can get a pretty accurate overview of any number of other factors that are so integral to supporting student learning. On any given morning, I am able to determine if a student who I know often comes to school on an empty stomach, has eaten breakfast. I can take note of which student is coming in without a coat on a cold morning. I can playfully tease a troubled teen to get a sense of their mindset that morning, and attempt to illicit a shy smile. I can compliment an anxious student on a new haircut or a new outfit, hopefully planting a small seed of confidence and security that will set them off on a good path for the day.

Perhaps even more importantly, are the students who walk through the doors ten, fifteen, twenty minutes late. They get that same cheerful "good morning". Because for some of our students, just making it to school is a good thing. I have learned that there is almost always a context, a story, behind that late arrival.

I can't deny, this morning ritual is a bit selfish on my part. Those shy smiles, those morning greetings, fuel me for the day. They energize and inspire me. They remind me of why I do what I do. They are an opportunity for more...

Sunday, 25 October 2015

It's Not You, It's Me- The Common Denominator

It starts with me...

It's not you, it's me. And I don't mean that in the cliched, "It's actually really you" way. It really is me...

I've always imagined that I was fairly articulate, a good communicator. Although I was slow to begin reading and writing in elementary school, once I caught on, I quickly developed a deep appreciation for the intricacies of language. I am mindful of the incredible power of words- their ability to shift perceptions and transform thinking. I've always felt that clear, transparent communication is essential to building trusting, collaborative relationships. So needless to say, it's been a bit of eye opener to realize that I actually kind of suck at it. Ok, "suck" might be a bit strong... Let's just say, it's an area of growth for me.

Fortunately, I have some incredibly wise mentors in my life. I've written in previous posts how these individuals have helped me to find my edge, and to move past it into new understanding and learning. They push me to examine and question my own thinking, to consider my motivations for doing what I do. They encourage, support and challenge me every day. And they're not afraid to tell me when I'm wrong...

So here's where the "it's me" part comes in. In conversation with a couple of these wise individuals over this past week, I've come to realize that in every scenario where I've felt frustrated, or ineffective in my interactions with others, the common denominator was me. I may have felt like I was communicating effectively, but if there was confusion or concern as a result, I failed to communicate effectively. I may have felt like I was showing compassion and care in my interactions with others, but if there was anxiety or upset as a result, I failed to demonstrate compassion and care. I may have felt like I was providing opportunities for growth and learning, but if that resulted in disengagement or unease, then I failed to provide opportunities for growth and learning. I have been reminded that it really doesn't matter what I feel like I'm doing, what matters is others' perception and understanding of what I'm doing... I know "failed" is a strong word. But I see it as an absolutely necessary realization, an opportunity to reflect, to re-evaluate and to grow.

By identifying myself as the "common denominator", I am gradually moving towards a better understanding of what I need to do to move forward, and to support the continued growth and learning of staff and students in my school community. By identifying myself as the common denominator, I have been reminded that it starts with me.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

In the End, No One Really Cares

The other day, I told a student that I didn't care if he failed. I'm sure he thought I was crazy. And likely the counsellor who was sitting in on the conversation was thinking the same thing. To her credit, she didn't say it out loud.

The student that I was speaking to had been missing classes. In the first month and a half of classes, he'd probably missed more than he'd attended. As a result of this, and several other factors, he was failing all of his classes. One of which he was repeating for the second time. He had come to school on this day, late, but he'd come. Perhaps as a result of the conversation that I'd had with his mom the day before. To be honest, I was just so happy to see him, all I could do initially was grin at him. Thus the, "this woman is crazy" look on his face...

As we waited for his counsellor to join us, I asked him what his favourite thing was about school. He stared at me blankly, and then slowly began to shake his head from side to side. He didn't know. He couldn't think of anything. Although I maintained my smile, inside my heart was sinking. A month a half into school, and there wasn't a single thing that this student could think of that he liked so far. But after a minute or two of gentle probing, he finally thought of something. He liked cooking. Awesome.

In attempt to put him at ease a bit, I began to tell him a little about myself. I'm new to the school, and so I'm meeting many of our 1200 students for the first time. I shared that I'd struggled in school myself, that I'd also failed classes. His eyes widened. I told him that when I'd interviewed for my current position, no one had asked me when I'd learned how to read (grade 2), how many times I'd failed math (twice), or how many awards I'd won (one, in grade 8 Band- thank you Mr. Green). They didn't care about any of that stuff. They just cared about where I was now.

As the counsellor entered, our conversation continued. I told him that "success" might look a little bit different for him. It might take him a few more times through a course, an extra year in high school, some additional support through it all. And I also told him that I didn't care if he failed a class. I just wanted him to come. That we would worry about the whole "passing" thing a little later on...

As we set out a plan for the following week, one that includes him stopping by in the mornings to say hi to me before he sets off for class, I reminded him that five, ten years from now, no one would really care where he'd started out...they would just care where he finished. I'm not sure if he believed me. He probably still thinks I'm a bit crazy. But as long as I get to say hi to him every single morning next week, I'm ok with that...

My one & only. Thank you Mr. Green. 

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Our Stories Are Important

Our stories are important. They form the essence of who we are, and of who we hope to become. And it is through sharing our stories that we learn, we connect and we grow. In fact, I would suggest that it's through stories that we learn best.

This past weekend, I had the remarkable privilege of being able to share a little of my story with an incredibly receptive and warm group of individuals at TEDxWestVancouverED. The opportunity to share my voice, my story, with others was an amazingly empowering experience- a privilege in every sense of the word.

But in the midst of this amazing experience, I couldn't help but think of those individuals in my school community who might not have an opportunity to be heard, whose voices are marginalized or stifled. I thought of the students who struggle with mental health issues, students whose voices might be silenced by overwhelming fear and anxiety. I thought of the families for whom schools can be an intimidating place, perhaps associated with unpleasant memories or experiences.

And so I am mindful of my privileged position- not only do I have an opportunity to share my story, but I have the responsibility, the privilege, to help empower others to share theirs as well...

Photo courtesy of  Rose Pillay

Friday, 4 September 2015

You Will Find Your Way

Perhaps even more so than in previous years, I am eagerly anticipating the first day of school. But moving into a new role, a new school and a new district has also given me cause to reflect on the apprehension that some of our students experience as they approach the start of the school year. For many students, this is a time of rekindled friendships, shiny new school supplies and endless possibilities. But for others, "back to school" is associated with an overwhelming sense of anxiety, even dread. My own struggles in school have provided me with some invaluable insights into this other side of "back to school"... 

And so, if I could speak directly to those students, here is what I would say...

Schools can be rough. They can be filled with unknowns and uncertainties. You will have to navigate unfamiliar hallways, ambiguous rules, challenging courses and occasionally unkind classmates. You will feel overwhelmed at times, even angry or scared. You will struggle. You might even fail. But you will find your way. Maybe on your own, or maybe with some help. And your way might look just a little bit different than everyone else's. But that's ok. Because everyone's journey is unique. And there is no one right way. There is just your way. And I will do my very best to help you find it. 
And so as we embark on the start of a new school year, I am confident that my colleagues will join me in supporting all of our students as they walk through the front doors of our schools, and into our classrooms. Because it is our responsibility, our privilege, to help them find their way. 

Thursday, 13 August 2015

On the Edge

I am fortunate to have some incredibly wise people in my life. And although I'm notorious for being a bit of a "loner", fiercely independent, and let's just say, a wee bit stubborn, I have come to understand that I need these people in order to continue to learn, to grow, and to expand my perspective of the world around me.

I was recently reminded by one such wise individual of the saying, learning happens on the edge of understanding. The challenge for me is to figure out where that edge is. It means something different for each of us, and it is often a scary and uncomfortable place to be. It should be. Because it means taking a risk, pushing past the familiar, the "known" and charging into uncharted territory. Scary stuff for sure. But as scary as it is, I have gradually learned to embrace, even seek out that feeling. Rather than allowing myself to recoil, to pull back, I have learned to teeter on that edge for a moment, and then force myself over the precipice, on to the other side. Sometimes I can do this myself, and sometimes I need a gentle shove. It's always uncomfortable. It's always scary. And usually the landing on the "other side" is less than graceful, more often than not accompanied by a few bumps and bruises. But, the rewards are enormous!

I've been fortunate over this past year to have had several opportunities to find my edge and to push beyond it to experience new learning, new understanding. Whether it's through yoga, climbing a mountain, or challenging myself professionally, I am learning that although it's often a scary and uncomfortable place to be, with the patient support and guidance of some very wise people in my life, it is also kind of awesome. My intention for the year ahead is to continue to reflect, to explore, to risk and to find new edges...

What's your edge?

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Finding the Right Gear

          Finding the right gear can be a challenge. The trick is to try to anticipate the gear you'll need, before you find yourself grinding up a difficult hill. Once you're committed to the hill, it's challenging, almost impossible, to attempt to shift gears- you risk your chain coming off altogether. But to some extent you can decide how you want to approach each hill. You can muscle your way up, employing a higher gear, relying mostly on strength. Or, you can rely more on cardio endurance, shifting into a lower gear and faster cadence. It depends largely on your style, your strengths, and on the conditions you find yourself riding in.
          As I approach a new school year, I find myself trying to anticipate the "gear" that I'll need. To some extent, I can prepare ahead of time. I can rely on past experiences, seek advice and guidance from mentors and gather as much information about my new school community as I can. But the reality is that as much as I can prepare, I will also need to be able to "shift gears", adapting to new circumstances, contexts and challenges as they arise. It's simply not possible to predict and prepare for every eventuality. There will be some blind spots and I won't be able to see each new hill as I approach it. I might even have to take the risk of shifting gears mid hill. But it is these very aspects that contribute to my excitement and eagerness as the new school year approaches. I am so looking forward to the road ahead!

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Are You Talking to ME?

          Trust. Relationships. Leadership. Values. Vision. 
I lost count as to how many times I heard these powerful words this past week. To be honest, it's all still a bit of a hazy blur, the result of long hours of learning and connecting with colleagues at the @bcpvpa "Short Course" at UBC. But despite the long hours, I left the beautiful new UBC Student Union Building on Friday afternoon feeling inspired and invigorated. And just a wee bit freaked out.

The short course is essentially structured around the BCPVPA Leadership Standards, which encompass Moral Stewardship, as well as Instructional, Relational and Organizational Leadership. Each day focussed on an aspect of these standards, ranging from discussions on educational innovation and leadership to the "nitty gritty" of the numerous, seemingly unending tasks associated with supporting a thriving school community. If I wasn't already overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the responsibility of helping to shape the future of our youth, this past week most certainly helped to clarify that most rewarding, yet enormously demanding role. Thus the "freaked out" reference.

BCPVPA Leadership Standards
And I'm not alone. At several times throughout the course of the week, I would catch a colleagues' eye and I could see that they were thinking the exact same thing that I was:

"Are you talking to me?" 

At times, I wasn't so sure. Who was this "superhero" that BCPVPA president-elect Kevin Reimer was talking about? There were more than a few times where I was convinced that perhaps I was in the wrong room, that someone had made a terrible mistake. But as the week progressed, our facilitators and session leaders assured us that we did indeed have the necessary skills and abilities to take on the role of an Administrator. We don't have all of the answers, we don't even necessarily know the right questions to ask, but we have gotten to where we are today by relying on our greatest resources: our colleagues and our "kids".

So in the haze of reflection, I am left feeling somewhat overwhelmed, but also incredibly inspired, to continue on this journey. I will need your help along the way, because what I know in my heart more than ever is that I can't do this alone.
And yes, I'm talking to you. 
Lady Bugs are cool.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Defining Success

          By many people's definition, I was not a "successful" student. I struggled in elementary school with math and writing, and I was slow to begin reading. I have vivid memories of feeling enormous shame after getting back yet another math test that I had failed miserably. I can still see the vibrant red "F" at the top of the page. I was the kid with the multiplication table taped to the top corner of their desk. I also distinctly remember the stigma of being one of several students who were scooped out of class several times a week to be taken for "extra help". I say stigma, because again, I can remember the feeling of shame as I was led down the hallway by Mrs. MacMillian, the resource teacher, to a partitioned corner of the library which doubled as a "resource room". I can remember the colour of the carpet. I can remember the kindly face of my teacher. But mostly I can remember feeling embarrassed.
          In high school, my struggles continued. Although I was an avid reader by that time, often completing books in a single sitting, I still struggled in math and french. My years followed a predictable routine of failing a class or two, attending summer school, and once again failing those same classes the following year. By then, many of the feelings of shame had subsided. Despite my "failures", I was well liked by my teachers, generally considered a "good kid" and was finding some "success" in other classes. I excelled in English, loved to debate in law and won an award in band. However, I was a "good kid" making many "not so good" choices. In hindsight, my teachers must have known, but due to their considerable good will and understanding, my "extra-curricular" activities never landed me in the principal's office, nor did they prevent me from graduating. Barely. 
          In grade 12, having failed several courses over the years, I needed to pass all of my classes to receive enough credits to graduate. A challenging task for a student who was more likely to be found hanging out in the local coffee shop than attending classes. But somehow I made it through. And "back then" I even managed to get accepted into a local college. Much to my parents' enormous relief.
Grade 12 Garr. Don't judge- it was the 80s.
          In college, with the freedom to choose my courses, I was more engaged, enough to do fairly well in my classes. Well enough to transfer to University in my third year. But once again, as a result of a number of factors, I began to struggle in my classes. Another vivid memory- standing in my mother's kitchen trying to decipher the academic jargon in a letter that I had received from the University. I remember asking my mom in disbelief, "Does this mean they're kicking me out?" And indeed, that's exactly what it meant. 
          Perhaps a blessing in disguise. I began to work full time, and enrolled in a French class at the local college. I was encouraged by my professor to watch French soap operas and listen to CBC radio in French. I immersed myself in the language and the culture. And it worked. Once again I was back on track and re-admitted to University the following year to complete my Bachelor's degree. But even then, I wasn't one of those students who was particularly "passionate" about anything. I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do "when I grew up". I spent several years moving through various jobs before I decided to return to school to obtain my Bachelor's of Education. 
          Perhaps now, I might meet a more traditional definition of "success". I continued on with my schooling, completing a Masters degree, taught for 17 years in a vibrant and supportive school district, and have recently moved into a Vice Principal position. I have a rewarding job, a supportive family, a nice home... But I am eternally grateful that my teachers didn't apply that more traditional definition of success to the 15 year old me, the one who rarely attended, made poor choices, and failed classes. They clearly had a broader definition.
          I'm grateful for the bumpy road that brought me to where I am today. It provides me with invaluable insight into the lives of some of my students. It provides me with the understanding that behind each student, there is a context, a story. I've seen first hand the impact that a supportive adult can have in a student's life. And I've learned to look very hard for the "good kid" behind the "not so good" choices. 

Friday, 19 June 2015

THIS is a School.

           In her 2015 TED Talk, Philadelphia principal, Linda Cliatt-Wayman, shares the profoundly moving story of an impactful moment when Ashley, a student from a struggling inner city high school, boldly proclaimed at an assembly, "This is not a school."

          So what makes a school more than simply a bricks and mortar institution? What are the essential qualities that contribute to a vibrant, innovative and welcoming community of learners? The reality is, there's no magic formula, no quick and easy recipe to follow. And even if there was, many of the components or ingredients are difficult, if not impossible, to "measure". After 15 years as a member of a school community that has undergone significant challenges and transformation, I have more questions than answers. But with the help of my colleagues and my students, here's what I've discovered so far...

...THIS is a School.

  • It is a place where teachers and administrators value connections and relationships over content and curriculum. 

Courtesy of Dean Shareski My Ongoing Struggle With Diffusing the Impact of Grades

Connections Over Content

  • It is a place where students feel appreciated, heard and cared for. It is a place where they feel loved.

Courtesy of George Couros Innovation Does Not Happen in Schools If a Child Does Not Feel Loved
Courtesy of Kate Law
  • It is a place where all members of the school community are encouraged to celebrate and share their successes and their challenges


  • It is a place where learning doesn't just happen in the classroom. It is a place where teachers understand that the "extra" stuff is what makes a difference.

Courtesy of Alyssa Becker

  • It is a place where students are empowered and equipped to design and share their own learning. 


  • It is a place that supports teachers as they strive to integrate innovative teaching and assessment practices into their classrooms. It is a place where educators continuously challenge themselves to create learning experiences that are relevant and engaging for their students. 

Learning Partners
  • It is a place where students feel like they belong. It is a place where they can be themselves, their best self.
It is a family.

"...We are a family." by Shanali

          With gratitude and appreciation, I'd like to thank my Sullivan Heights Secondary family for many years of laughter and learning. #alwaysastar And I look forward with great excitement to joining a new school community, a new family, at Steveston-London Secondary. #gosharks

Thursday, 21 May 2015

A Rose By Any Other Name: Re-Naming Roles

Student. Teacher. Administrator.
          To what extent are we defined by, and/or perhaps limited by, these "titles"? As I begin my transition from classroom teacher to Vice-Principal, it's a question that has taken on a new significance to me. As our education system continues to adapt and evolve to meet the changing needs of our students, our roles must also evolve to reflect a more collaborative approach to student learning. We all agree that this needs to be a team effort. And there's no debate that students, parents and individuals from our larger school community are integral members of this "team". And so with this shift towards a more collaborative and collective approach to education, how important is the language that we use to define our shifting and evolving "roles"?
          Anyone who has had to decipher a particularly challenging Shakespearean play, or an ambiguous text from a teenager is acutely aware that language is constantly evolving, and the language of education is no different. Among the numerous newly coined terms and titles (there are actually online dictionaries of educational jargon) we see a move towards "Lead Learners" instead of principals or superintendents and "Teacher Leaders" instead of department heads, to name but a few. In his recent blog post, "There Should Be More Than One 'Lead Learner'", George Couros shared his reluctance to use the term "Lead Learner" in reference to school and district leaders, suggesting that to acknowledge and value the shared expertise that exists in many school communities, "the term 'lead leader' could and should be applied to many". In the same way, I am somewhat wary of the term "teacher leader". If we label some teachers as "leaders" in a school, then what does that imply about the others? 

          So how important is this re-naming? Does it actually signify a significant shift in perceptions, roles and responsibilities, or it simply just assigning a new title to the same traditional roles and hierarchies that have always existed within school communities? Kristi Blakeway, principal of Harry Hooge Elementary, recently wrote a post entitled "I'm Not THAT Principal: Re-Imagine the Role", in which she addresses some of the stereotypes that exist about school principals. I appreciate her thinking behind "re-imagining" the principal persona, which even extends to the way that we organize and arrange our office spaces to be more inclusive and welcoming. 
          I'd like to think that when I assume my new "role" in administration I won't be that Vice-Principal. But how much will this desire to "re-imagine" my role will be constrained by the systems that are already in place? To some extent, my concerns were addressed when I had the opportunity to take on an Acting Vice-Principal role. It was reassuring to confirm that strong and trusting relationships are as integral in an administrative role as they are for the classroom teacher, and that a collaborative, inclusive approach that values student voice and input from families and community members is an essential component of establishing and effectively communicating a clear vision for a school. 
          So as we continue on this journey to re-define what our education system looks like for our students, how important is it that our language reflects this evolution? In homage to my English teacher roots, would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The Stigma of Sharing

No one would be interested. It's not good enough...  

As educators, one of our greatest challenges is establishing a safe and supportive classroom environment, one that provides our students with the skills and confidence that is necessary to take the "risk" of sharing their learning with their peers. In a previous post, I commented that we can't ask our students to do something that we aren't willing to do ourselves. We ask them to recite a poem, to solve a challenging math equation, to run an extra lap. And yet do teachers lack the confidence and support to do the same? And even more unsettling, do some face criticism from their peers when they do take the "leap" of sharing their ideas beyond the walls of their classroom?

As department leader of Learning Partners, I spent a good portion of my time encouraging and reassuring teachers that their ideas are indeed "good enough". With the support of our department team members and our Administration, it has been a gradual process of building a climate of trust and openness, where teachers feel valued and supported to take the risk of opening their classroom doors. At Sullivan Heights Secondary, teachers are able to share their lessons and activities via a "Collaboration Calendar". As well, we are now in our third year of "Teacher Drop In". As such, I've been fortunate to visit many of my colleagues' classrooms. As in all schools, there is amazing, imaginative, innovative teaching and learning happening. And yet quite often when I ask a teacher if they would be willing to contribute by adding their lesson to the shared calendar, they typically respond with, "Well, it's really not that interesting..." or "It's actually not very good."

Similarly, as I helped to coordinate the Ignite presentations for the Surrey School district's "Engaging the Digital Learner" series, one of the biggest challenges is finding teachers who are willing to share with their colleagues. Is this an admirable modesty, a lack of confidence, a fear of judgement by ones' peers, or a combination of all of these? And is this unique to the teaching profession? Why is it perceived by some as immodest, even inappropriate, when teachers share their ideas?

I would argue that in the same way that we support our students to take risks and to share their learning, we must be willing to support and encourage our colleagues do the same. We wouldn't dream of ridiculing a student who takes the step of standing up in front of their peers to sing a song at an assembly, or who posts a video that they have created. We encourage this. We recognize it as an important skill, a milestone, a celebration of learning.

Are teachers obligated to share their learning with colleagues? No. But should they be supported to do so? Absolutely.


Monday, 4 May 2015

A Parting Gift: An Outsider's Perspective

With special thanks and gratitude to Elisa Carlson, Director of Instruction for the Surrey School District, for allowing me this opportunity to share my perspective and insights on my learning journey as I move from #sd36learn to #sd38.

Innovative Learning Designs- A Parting Gift

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The "Non-Tweetable" Moments

Non-Tweetable Moments


          I had never heard George Couros speak before... I'm pretty sure I just heard the collective gasp of a thousand educators. But somehow, by some cosmic fluke, I had missed out on numerous opportunities to attend sessions where George was the featured speaker. However, I'm happy to share that I have now joined the ranks of those who have laughed and learned alongside him. And I was able to share some of my learning as a participant in the "Edge Players" session organized by Elisa Carlson, Surrey School District's Director of Instruction, via the #sd36lead hashtag. In fact, many of the educators who attended yesterday's session shared their learning via Twitter. And there was a great deal to share. But some of my most profound and impactful moments can't be found by following a hashtag. These were the "non-tweetable" moments.
          You see, I've discovered George's secret weapon, his superpower. He shares. A lot. And when he shares, it makes others want to share as well. Without a doubt, much of what he shares in his sessions can be found online. He writes extensively on numerous, wide ranging and diverse topics. He is prolific on Twitter, connecting, sharing and engaging with his followers on a daily basis. But yesterday, in a room full of inspiring, creative, caring and innovative educators, I would argue that some of our most profound and impactful moments were in fact the "non-tweetable" moments, those moments when we had an opportunity to speak freely, to share our insecurities and fears, our challenges and concerns.

          You see, this kind of sharing requires a context, a shared experience, a common understanding. It requires an earned trust and a willingness to risk. And George's secret weapon is that he goes first. He began by establishing the parameters for the "non-tweetable" moments, and we followed his lead. And because of this, as much as I learned from George during the session, I don't think he will be at all offended for me to admit that I learned even more from my fellow #sd36learn educators.
          I am passionate about the power of Twitter as a platform for incredible professional learning and growth. It provides opportunities to connect and collaborate on a global scale. But at the same time, some of our most impactful learning comes from an opportunity to share and learn from those who are closest to us, the people in the room.


Saturday, 28 March 2015

The People in the Room

          I have been privileged to be an educator for the past 16 years in a district that values innovation, risk taking, and ongoing professional growth and learning. The Engaging the Digital Learner series is just one example of an initiative that has been designed to celebrate, support, inspire and challenge educators, and it is one that has been especially impactful and meaningful for me. Having presented my own Ignite last year on Creating a Culture of Collaboration I have first hand knowledge of the exhilarating, and yes, somewhat nerve-wracking, experience that sharing one's passion in front of several hundred colleagues can be.
          This year, I have been fortunate to be able to work alongside Elisa Carlson, Director of Instruction for the Surrey School district, by assisting with the coordination of Ignite presentations. In her recent post, The Sharing Continues, Elisa captures the essence of the evening, noting that the learning extends beyond the room, and that "professional learning, in an era of technology, is now spilling out of its traditional boxes and spreading across organizations through the power of the internet and social media".
          In my role, I begin to connect with Ignite presenters via email and Twitter over the course of several weeks leading up to each subsequent session. In many instances, I've never met these individuals. As the largest school district in BC, Surrey is home to 101 elementary schools and 19 secondary schools. As well, some of our presenters travel from other districts and occasionally from other countries. But gradually, through numerous emails and across time zones and district boundaries, I come to "know" these individuals as they shape and refine their passions into a format that they are then able to share with their colleagues. What a privilege. 
          I finally have the opportunity to meet the Ignite presenters on the day of the session. I share their nervous excitement and anticipation as they move towards the appointed hour. While Elisa's video of the live streamed event provides the perspective of the audience, I have a unique perspective. Stationed at the front of the large banquet room, I am able to watch the audience, as the audience watches the presenters. As each subsequent presenter makes their way through their 20 slide, 5 minute presentation, I see their enthusiasm and passion mirrored in the faces of their audience. 
          Because as impactful and life changing as engaging in online platforms such as Twitter have been for me as I continue my own journey of professional growth and learning, these face to face sharing sessions hold their own power. I watch as individuals who have sometimes only "met" via social media, gather during each session, often playing the game of "match the tiny Twitter profile picture to the person". And I watch as that moment of recognition occurs and as individuals then greet each other like old friends. It's the same feeling that I get when I have the opportunity to meet, and shake the hand of a presenter for the first time. I get to match the passion and excitement conveyed by the numerous conversations via email, with the individual. 
          So while the Engaging the Digital Learner series celebrates and supports the principle of digitally connected educators and students, it also provides the essential opportunity for those irreplaceable face to face connections that form the foundation of a collaborative, trusting and innovative community. Yes, sometimes it's about reaching out, but other times it's just about spending some time with the people in the room. 
Surrey School District SD #36 Engaging the Digital Learner: Learning by Design series.


Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Context. Connections. Community.

          Context. Connections. Community. These are the elements of Parent/Teacher evenings that I value most. Yes, they're also about important conversations centred around student learning. And for my students, those conversations will be self directed. But as essential as those conversations are, for me it's the additional level of context, or insight into a students' life that is the most rewarding element of such a night.
          Facilitating Student Led conferences allows me the luxury of inviting more than just the "obligatory" parent into my classroom. Unlike some more traditionally structured parent/teacher interviews, Student Led conferences can be designed as a celebration of learning, where students are encouraged to share their successes, triumphs and challenges with parents, siblings, aunts, cousins or any other significant individual in their lives that they choose. I've written in previous posts about how essential it is to learn the stories of our students, and how this can often be a daunting task. I teach in a school of close to 1500 students...that a lot of stories to learn! But an essential piece of those stories is missing if we aren't inviting our communities into our schools. Each piece that I can add to that very complex puzzle provides context, context that informs how I can best support and empower my students in their learning and growth.
          One particular "story" comes to mind. A grade 11 boy. Typically quiet, even sullen in class. Try as I might, I couldn't get this kid to crack a smile. And believe me, I tried. As the time for Student Led Conferencs approached, I was pretty sceptical that this particlar student would attend. No surprise that for most teens, the prospect of having a conversation with families about "their learning" isn't exactly met with great enthusiasm. It takes some preparation and encouragement on my part, and the sincere promise that students will be determining the content and direction of these conversations...they choose the focus and the elements that they wish to share. I shake hands, offer coffee and cookies, and step back to allow the student to step up.
          But much to surprise, at the appointed hour not only did my grade 11 saunter through the door, but he was followed by both parents and the cutest, bubbliest, dressed in frills, little girl, who as I soon to discover was his sister. What immediately struck me how different my "sullen" student was with this little girl in tow. He proudly showed her where he sat, pointed out a poster on the wall that he'd comlpeted, and led he over to a computer to show her his blog. It was pretty clear that he doted on this little girl. The enormous grin on his face while she admired his work was evidence of that. Her presence transformed him. And it gave me an "in", a context, a connection.
          The next morning in class, this same grade 11 boy reverted back to his typically quiet, sullen self. Until I began to ask him questions about his little sister, at which point a small, shy grin replaced his usually stone-faced expression. That connection opened to door to a relationship that I was able to nurture and grow for the remainder of the semester. It established a level of trust. It gave me an "in", an opportunity to discover how best to support this student in his social, emotional and academic growth.
          So for me, as essential as it is for students to take ownership of their learning by leading their own conferences, the true rewards of such an evening come from the insight that I gain into my students' lives. Context. Connections. Community.
Adding pieces to the puzzle...

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

My Heroes Are...

My Heroes Are...

My students, who willingly take risks in my classroom every single day, bravely sharing bits and pieces of themselves with me and with their classmates, simply because I ask them to...

My colleagues, who can make me laugh, even before my morning coffee, and support each other despite increasingly demanding schedules, demonstrating an unending zeal for learning and discovery...

My family, who give me the enormous gift of time to explore my passions and forgive my numerous flaws and foibles...

My friends, who show such courage, overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges with grace and patience, all the while offering me unwavering support and encouragement...

They may not wear capes, leap tall buildings with a single bound, or possess supernatural abilities, but without a doubt, these are my heroes

Monday, 2 February 2015

Taking the Next Step: Collaboration Calendar & Shared Learning Resources

          Teachers at Sullivan Heights Secondary are ready to take the next step. Already "Taking the Lead" when it comes to establishing a culture of trust and collaboration, teachers want the opportunity to extend and build upon the "Teacher Drop in Day" experience.

Selection of responses from Learning Partners "Teacher Drop In Day" follow up survey.

          Teachers clearly valued the collegial and collaborative environment that was created by the day, but wanted the opportunity to extend the "Open Door" policy and sharing of innovative teaching and assessment practices, on an ongoing basis. As such, a collaborative partnership between Learning Partners and members of our Information Technology department, led to the creation of a "Collaboration Calendar".
          By using Outlook to create and share the "Collaboration Calendar" with our staff, teachers are now able to enter and share actives and assignments with their colleagues. They are then able to visit each other's classrooms before or after their teaching day, (Sullivan Heights operates on an extended day schedule) during prep time, or by accessing Learning Partners department release time for class coverage.
          Rather than being confined to a single day, we are now able to facilitate "Teacher Drop in" on an ongoing basis. As well, the goal is that the "Collaboration Calendar" will function as a digital artifact of the many great things that are happening in classrooms, and so even if teachers aren't able to visit on a particular day, they can still be inspired by the various activities that are entered on the calendar.
Learning Partners "Collaboration Calendar"
          While creating the "Collaboration Calendar" was a logical "next step", it also made sense to provide an opportunity for teachers to share the specific documents that accompanied the activities and assignments that they were entering. Ben Richardson, a member of the Information Technology department at Sullivan Heights, proposed the creation of repository of  "Shared Learning Resources" for this very purpose. Originally from Australia, Ben had previous experience with a similar sharing platform. The question was, which platform would best meet our needs?

Considerations as to which online sharing platform to use included:
1. Accessibility
2. Efficiency
3. Sustainability

         Ultimately, we wanted teachers to have easy access regardless of whether they were at school or at home, be able to share a variety of document types, and be assured that whatever we decided upon wouldn't be phased out within the next couple of years. It was determined that Google Drive met all of these criteria. As well, in a move towards the gradual integration of the redesigned curriculum, folders were created that will encourage and support teachers as they focus on creating lessons and assessments that connect to the "Core Competencies" .

          By accessing the shared Google Drive, teachers can upload a variety of documents, creating an enormously valuable repository of free, cross-curricular resources. Ultimately, the goal would be to perhaps extend this "sharing" of resources beyond the walls of Sullivan Heights, to other schools within the Surrey School District.
A sample of documents in the "Integrating Technology" folder. 
          As with any new initiative, Learning Partners will continue to gather feedback from staff and navigate challenges as they arise. But based on the culture of collaboration and trust that has already been established at Sullivan Heights, I have no doubt that our teachers will once again "take the lead" as they continue to demonstrate their willingness to take risks and reflect on their own professional growth and development as a means to enhance student learning and achievement.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Connections Over Content, Every Time.


So, a confession. I don't particularly love English. The subject, not the language.

I'm pretty sure I just heard a collective gasp from my students. 
And perhaps my principal.

          Don't get me wrong, I love literature and writing. And most of my students and colleagues know that I'm pretty fond of Shakespeare. And not so fond of poetry. But what I'm passionate about as an educator are the connections, not the content.

Relationships are essential. Punctuation isn't.

Another collective gasp.

          But it is the connections, the relationships, that I form with my colleagues, students, parents and members of the school community that I value most. These relationships inspire and energize me. Not the content. As a teacher leader, it is contributing to the larger vision and goals of my school and of my district that fills me purpose and passion. Not the content. 
          I was reminded of the importance of connections over content in a recent tweet by SD #36 Director of Instruction, Elisa Carlson.

          Her son's "favourite memory about learning" wasn't in any way related to the content. Clearly he had an awesome math teacher. But it wasn't a memory of a spectacular mathematical equation that resonated most. It was a unique experience, a connection that he had with that teacher. 
          I've had similar conversations with my own son. When I ask him about his day at school, more often that not, it's not a lesson or new skill that he shares with me. It's a joke his teacher told. Or something goofy that his principal did to entertain the students on the playground. 
          When my students come back to visit me years after they've graduated, they don't come back to thank me for teaching them how to analyze a poem, or integrate a quote, or write an essay. They come back because of a relationship. A connection. 
          Yes, my heart still fills with joy when a student of mine integrates a literary allusion into a tweet related to a sporting event. And yes, I have enough Shakespeare memorabilia in my classroom to open my own store. 
But I will take the connections over the content, every time.